It might be time to give Will Middlebrooks another look.
It has been just more than a month since the third baseman -- originally thought to be the Red Sox' middle-of-the-order answer at the hot corner, no questions asked -- played a big league game. And looking back, the reasons that necessitated a daily commute from his condo in Boston to Pawtucket have been more extensive than the Texas native could have ever known.
A lot has happened over those 37 days. And now, for the sake of potentially breathing some life into the major-league team, perhaps the Sox should revisit the original plan. This could be a good time to give Middlebrooks another crack at playing third base for the Red Sox.
"It's easy to lose your way. Will's over that disappointment and dejection and the, 'Oh my God, I lost my job.' He's at a good place," said Pawtucket Red Sox manager Gary DiSarcina. "He's having good at-bats. He's relatively healthy as long as he manages his lower back. In the end I think he's going to help the team win, the big league team."
So, what has changed? Let's start with the Red Sox' needs.
Since July 5 -- when the team took off for its pre-All-Star-break West Coast swing -- the left side of the Red Sox infield has supplied barely a trickle of offense. Jose Iglesias' last 17 games have resulted in .175 batting average and .395 OPS (second-worst in the majors over that span). The young infielder has walked just twice in 67 plate appearances, totaling just three hits against fastballs in that stretch.
And with Stephen Drew still not finding his hitting stride since coming off the 15-day disabled list (1-for-15), the Red Sox' shortstops have totaled a major league-worst .167 batting average and .417 OPS since July 5. Third base hasn't been much better, without that group of Sox hitting .207 with a .457 OPS in the sample size.
While most are focusing on the team's need for pitching at the non-waiver trade deadline, the offensive output of these two positions has to be cause for some concern.
Where does Middlebrooks fit in?
There are certainly no guarantees that the 24-year-old is any kind of answer. He has totaled a modest .269 batting average and .811 OPS to go along with eight homers in 131 Triple-A plate appearances. And it isn't unreasonable to consider his PawSox teammate Xander Bogaerts as an equally viable answer (although the organization does feel there are some key developmental steps that can be accomplished for the 20-year-old even in the next few weeks).
But there are enough signs that the combination of the diminished productivity of the current shortstop/third base pairing, along with the evolution of Middlebrooks, suggest the time for a second chance might be upon us.
"His first three or four days down here he wasn't himself," DiSarcina said. "He was disappointed. He was dejected. He felt like he lost his job. But there comes a point where the realization hit for him, and I think he realized that, 'I'm down her until I earn my way back,' and he's on his way back.
"He's a pleaser. He wants to please everybody. He wants to do the right things. He's got a great heart. I think he got caught up with the noise and everything that came with Boston. That's normal for a young kid who has had success in such a great town. He's got a second opportunity to get back to what's important and that's to play baseball. If he plays baseball the way he's capable of playing, he's going to be here for a long time and he's going to have the city at his beck and call because he's a prototypical third baseman, a big, strong right-handed hitter. If this is three years into his big league career he could handle everything, just like you see those guys who have been through the wars and they understand how to deal with the press, deal with the people and everyone asking for things. It's tough when you're a young kid from a small town in a big city and you're doing well."
Middlebrooks, who had totaled four-straight, two-hit games prior to Friday night, has listened, learned and embraced the process DiSarcina has helped guide him through.
"DiSar knows me probably better than anybody in this organization knows me," Middlebrooks said of his current manager. "He knows me since I was 18. He's seen me from the bottom-up. He's seen the development. He knows which buttons to push to get me to work. His biggest thing is to play free, that's what he likes to say. I've been trying to buy into that, laugh and have fun. One thing he said a couple of weeks ago was, 'Man, it's good to see you out there smiling again.You've been taking it so serious.' You have to have fun or this game will eat you alive."
He then added, "You know it's easy to lose your job, and I was trying not to lose mine instead of going out there and just playing baseball. I don't care what other people think. I control what I can control. What other people think doesn't bother me."
So, what's the hold-up? There still might be a few tweaks to be made, the sort of which may be better worked on somewhere other than the big leagues.
One of the underlying concerns could be what has become a balky back. When asked about his health status, Middlebrooks said, "The back stuff is really just starting now to go away. I had the DL stint, came off it and I felt better, but it was still there a little bit. Lower back is something that will feel better but a few days later it will flare up again. It's something I had to learn to take care of. I wouldn't say I'm 100 percent, but this is the best I've felt all year."
And while Middlebrooks earned high marks for attempting to play through both rib and back injuries while with the Red Sox, the ailments offered momentum for a growing uneasiness in all aspects of his major-league existence. It's a path both the player and team don't want to venture down again.
"My adversity this year was injuries. Were there baseball problems as well? Yes, and those all together created what happened," he said. "I was hurt and I tried to play through it and didn't do well. There was a path within there where I lost confidence and in this sport we all know you can't do that. I've had it back for a while now. It's not based on results. It's based on a feeling you have and it's something you have to create to get back on your own. I'm starting to realize the progress I'm making and seeing the changes."
DiSarcina and the PawSox have taken steps to help manage the lower back issue, scaling back on his presume defensive work so as to not run into the physical wall Middlebrooks had been facing in each game's final few innings.
The improved health, production and mindset have helped all elements of his game. Regarding his glove-work, Middlebrooks said, "I feel like I'm playing the best defense of my life." He's accepted his lot in life, suggesting DiSarcina's public statement regarding the reality of the player's length of stay at McCoy Stadium was already understood. ("I knew that from the beginning," he said. "What's said in the office between me, [John] Farrell and Ben [Cherington], that's what is between us. If they decide they want to talk about that, that's fine, but it's not going to be my decision.")
And then there is what was perceived as perhaps Middlebrooks' biggest roadblock to earning a return to the Red Sox' lineup -- the ability to control the strike zone.
The righty hitter's strikeout-to-walk ratio will most likely always be lopsided, but the ratio he was producing without the Sox, along with some of inability to identify the correct pitches to hit, were unacceptable. For example, 25 of his 60 strikeouts came on pitches out of the strike zone.
But there has been improvement, which has the organization taking notice.
"The consistency of his at-bats has gone up," DiSarcina said. "Earlier, when he first came down here, he was missing a lot of pitches he should have been hitting, fouling them back. He was taking some pitches he should have been hitting. He wasn't seeing the ball well. But his approach is coming around and relates to how his numbers look right now."
"I'm being more picky with what I'm swinging at," Middlebrooks said. "I was really overaggressive and I got in a hole early in the year so I was trying to do too much to get everything back at once. I was trying to get three hits at once. You can't do that, and pitchers know that. They see your swing and take advantage of your aggressiveness. I really pay more attention to when a guy is warming up, if he is throwing strikes, what pitches he's throwing strikes with. Instead of just going up there and expecting something and acting on what I think it's going to be, I'm thinking about the situation and not guessing."
There has seemingly been a change in the player. Now, maybe it's time for the team to follow suit.
"This isn't Kansas City, it's Boston. Everything becomes a big issue, especially with somebody who has had success," DiSarcina said. "I've seen his focus more on the field. He's done everything we've asked him to do. He's been a leader on the field. He runs out the balls he hits hard. He's out here for early work. He does all the things a big leaguer should be doing. It goes back to the consistency of his at-bats and the focus that baseball is No. 1. Baseball is his priority."
"I'm taking it pitch by pitch," Middlebrook said. "I'm enjoying the game again."